From The Readers' Editor | Readers' Editor

More is expected from the reporting team


When the credibility of major institutions is undermined, a journalist’s role becomes all the more important

We are witnessing an erosion of credibility of three crucial institutions: the Supreme Court, the Election Commission (EC), and the Central Statistics Office, responsible for computing the GDP numbers. While political scientists will reflect on the problems arising out of such a trust deficit for democracy, the Readers’ Editor’s office is concerned with how this newspaper has been covering developments concerning these institutions.

Covering the judiciary

There seems be a fairly comprehensive approach in covering the crisis in the judiciary. The judiciary was subjected to scrutiny after the tug of war between the judiciary and the government broke over the National Judicial Appointments Commission. The number of reports, analytical stories, and opinion pieces by legal scholars increased after the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court — Justices J. Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, M.B. Lokur and Kurian Joseph — held a press conference last year and “raised issues affecting the institution”. There has been an excellent balance of opinions and reportage since. For instance, various issues concerning the judiciary’s handling of the sexual harassment case against the Chief Justice of India were raised in the editorial “Prisoner of procedure” (May 8, 2019), as well as reports and opinion pieces in the newspaper.

Ignoring an early warning

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the controversy over data. Last week, the financial newspaper Mint reported that about 38% of companies, which the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) surveyed from the MCA-21 database of companies used for calculating GDP, could not be traced or were wrongly classified. The same issues were raised by R. Nagaraj in 2016 in “Why 7.6% growth is hard to square” (The Hindu, February 12). He wrote: “The revised NAS has used the Ministry of Corporate Affairs MCA-21 database of about 5.2 lakh companies to estimate PCS’s contribution to domestic output. It is then ‘blown up’ (scaled up) to over 9 lakh ‘active companies’ that claimed to have filed their financial returns at least once during the previous three years. Detailed investigations suggest shortcomings in these procedures, leading to an overestimation of the size and growth rates of PCS in the new GDP series — a tentative result that can be verified only if the MCA-21 database is made available for independent verification.” Professor Nagaraj’s warning was confirmed by the latest NSSO survey. Why was such an early warning from an eminent economist not taken up by the reporting team?

In “The Election Commission must act tough” (May 7, 2019), former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi pointed out how unfortunate it is that the Supreme Court had to step in recently to remind the EC of powers that it always had. In “What is missing in the 2019 election coverage” (April 1, 2019), I had pointed out that the media, including this newspaper, has been too gentle in the coverage of the election body despite numerous issues cropping up on a daily basis.

Need for meticulous reportage

I have mentioned elsewhere that if claims of policy success are not backed by field reports, people suspect the claims. The government’s pronouncements alone cannot build trust when there are reports of data suppression. Meticulous reportage backed by solid empirical data is the best validation for any policy pronouncement.

In 2011, the London-based Frontline Club conducted a survey among journalists on the role of investigative journalism. The responses exemplified the importance of the spirit of inquiry: “Journalism can hold individuals and institutions accountable in the way that elections every five years or AGMs do not... Investigative journalism simply does in a more detailed and comprehensive way what all journalism should do, namely act as a watchdog in the public interest.”

When a cloud of suspicion is undermining the credibility of major institutions, and trusted methodologies are tortured for narrow political gains, a journalist’s role becomes all the more important. Journalistic rigour is not restricted to data journalism and the editorial pages alone. The official growth numbers and the functioning of the EC have not been subjected to proper journalistic scrutiny in the news pages.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 11:13:21 PM |

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